Image: Video Headstone
Bob Imrie  /  AP
Doug Ellis, owner of Riverview Monuments in Wausau, Wis.,shows off a tombstone with a solar-powered video panel mounted to the front that pays tribute to the deceased in colored pictures, words, music and even videos.
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updated 12/11/2007 7:56:52 PM ET 2007-12-12T00:56:52

No one would set a scrapbook filled with pictures and memories on the tombstone of a loved one. But what about a high-tech, weatherproof version, with digital images powered by a solar cell?

That innovation is available now — but finding customers so far has proven slow going.

"I haven't sold any," said Doug Ellis of Riverview Monuments, who has been offering the so-called "serenity panel" system for about $2,000 since February.

Many customers tell him "That is not for me," he said, adding, "I think the Wausau area is a little more conservative yet."

The panel mounts to the front of the gravestone and pays tribute to the deceased in color pictures, words, music and even videos. It's all from a small memory chip inside a device that opens like the front cover of a book. Vidstone LLC, a company with offices in Florida and Colorado, developed the serenity panel about two years ago.

Cheri Lucking, Vidstone's national sales director in Aurora, Colorado, said the company has about 100 dealers across the country, including two in Minnesota, four in Illinois and seven in Michigan, and one in the United Kingdom. Ellis is the only one in Wisconsin.

"We don't release our sales figures," she said. "It is not a huge number at the moment."

Maria Schlitzberger, office manager of Schlitzberger and Daughters Monument Co. in Houston, said her company has sold one serenity panel in a year,

"That is a big step, putting electronics on your headstone," she said. "People are used to sandblasted, granite and marble and things like that."

Lucking likened the concept of putting a digital video scrapbook on a tombstone to when cell phones first came out and people said they would never own one.

"We all have one now," she said.

Ways of honoring the dead are changing because of technology, Lucking said.

More funeral homes use state-of-the-art visuals and put LCD screens in their chapels to do multimedia presentations, she said. "Five or six years ago, they weren't even doing video tributes."

Four hours of sun provides enough juice to play the video with up to a 10-minute tribute on a 7-inch (18-centimeter) LCD screen about six times. There are headphone jacks to listen to the audio.

"I thought it was a neat thing to bring into the industry. Something unique, something a little above and beyond just the standard engraving and pictures that end up on a monument," Ellis said.

Chuck Summers, retail sales manager for Moore Monument and Granite Co. in Sterling, Illinois, has had the device for about three months and is awaiting his first sale, too. He has got two good prospects but no signed deal.

"We range from $5,000 to $8,000 on a typical stone. When you tack on another $2,000 for the Vidstone, it gets pricey for the people in the area," he said.

But there are other issues besides the price — like which way will the tombstone face, since the player is solar powered.

"If the stone is under a tree, it is not going to work very well. If the stone is faced to the west instead of the east or north instead of the south, it is not going to charge as well," Summers said.

Sue Pergolski, owner of Wausau Monuments in Wausau, which has sold tombstones since 1909, has heard of the device, too, but is skeptical about the market for it, given its price and 15-year expected life.

"I can't imagine that they could make it so it would last forever," said Pergolski, who is even hesitant to sell etchings on tombstones, wary of how long they will last.

"We kind of have the old-fashioned ideas. We want it to look the same in 50 years and 100 years," she said.

Still, she added: "With baby boomers starting to look at monuments, maybe the electronics will be more attractive."

Ellis, 54, said maybe 15 potential customers have spent time looking and listening to the gravestone player he displays in his store. One woman asked him to mail her pricing information. But nobody has been serious about buying one.

Some people spend as much as $1,000 to put etchings on tombstones, so Ellis does not think the cost of the video tribute is the problem. It will just take time for the change to be accepted, he said.

There's all kinds of options for tributes — even letting the deceased speak from the grave.

"I see no reason," Ellis said, "why I couldn't stand in front of a video camera and give a message to my grandchildren, such as: 'Faith in the Lord was important to me.'"

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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